TL;DR – A brilliant follow up from Season One
Score – 4 out of 5 stars
So Season Two of Cleverman has come, hit us hard, and it’s now over. So we have had some time to think back and contemplate on the overarching themes for the season and how it worked, which is what we are going to do today. So today with our review we will look at how Season Two improved on Season One, look at the central themes and characters, and finally conclude on the importance of Cleverman. Before we start, just a warning that we will be talking about the season as a whole, so there will be [SPOILERS]. Also, this will be looking more broadly at the season, if you what to look at individual episodes, then you can look at our reviews here: Revival, Bindawu, Dark Clouds, Muya, Skin & Borrowed Time.
So when I was starting this overview, the first thing I did was take a look back at the overview I wrote for Season One (see here). Having looked through it I came to the section where I thought Cleverman needed some improvement, namely the ratio of World Building to Action and the role of women in the show. Now on both of these points, Season Two improved at every turn. Understandably, a lot of Season One had to be spent on letting people understand the world Cleverman was creating, both the current setting in (not so) future Australia, but also the Indigenous world that it was drawing a lot of its story from. Given the lack of understanding of Indigenous Australian culture and history, this took quite a bit of Season One to explain, which while needed, did affect the flow of the story and action. However, in Season Two, because they spent that time building the world, we can instead jump straight into the action and widening the world. Indeed, this season the training wheels are off, which really helps propel the central narrative of Waruu (Rob Collins) v Koen (Hunter Page-Lochard).
Another issue I had was the role that women played in the first season, up until almost the end they felt more like participants in other people stories. However, this is one of the big changes in Season Two, with all of the women of Cleverman having strong roles, and giving some of the greatest performances on Australian Television this year. You have Charlotte (Frances O’Connor) who had her eyes opened to the manipulations of her husband Jarrod (Iain Glen). This concluded with the final episode where she threw away all the trappings of her former life, freeing herself from his control for good. This was partly due to the role of motherhood, and this was one of the biggest themes at play during Season Two, which was one of the powerful motivations for many of the characters. Take Araluen (Tasma Walton) who is desperate to be reunited with her children who she has not seen since the start of Season One. That pain of loss drives her, it drives her to call out Koen on his past, and it also drives her to take part in the Inclusion Initiative. She knows what it entails and how much it will cost her, but it is a price she is willing to pay to be able to walk the streets and find her children. You have Nerida (Jada Alberts) who is trying everything to keep her daughter Alinta (Tamala Shelton) and Latani (Rarriwuy Hick) safe, from the world, from the Containment Authority, and even her husband Waruu. Indeed, when Nerida was separated from the girls, it was one of the emotional standouts from the season. As well as this, we have Aunty Linda (Deborah Mailman) who this season had to deal with her past becoming known, how she let jealousy and bitterness drive her to commit the most heinous of acts, and how she is trying to make up for her mistakes. However, this does not erase the pain of what she did. With all the really stupid decisions the men had been making it was great to see these characters take matters into their own hands.
This is all part of the main story this season, and that is what do you do with power, do you try and make the world a better place, or do you try to make it better for just you, or do you let it consume you with anger. Here we see the mirrored arcs of Waruu, Jacob Slade, Koen, and Jarli (Clarence Ryan), two of them are out there doing everything wrong, with bad (or at best mixed) motivations, two of them who are trying to do things for the right reasons, but only one of them is doing things with the right motive. Waruu, oh Waruu, if last season left you shaking your head as to why could someone act this way, well then Season Two will make you wonder how far he will fall, and the answer is all the way. Waruu throughout this season continues to show why Uncle Jimmy (Jack Charles) was right not to give him the mantle of Cleverman. What is power, what is respect, well they are something due to him by birth, not something to be earned. Why does he want his family back after abandoning them? Well, it’s not because he loves them, or cares for their wishes, it is because he wants power over their lives, and the thought of them starting a new life with the help of Tim (Luke Ford) is an affront to him and his position. What is interesting how very similar Slade and Waruu’s story is, Slade is a man who through technology and money has put himself in a position of power. Here he has seen the coming destruction of society as the environment is destroyed and is doing everything to protect himself from himself from the “The wrath of a dying planet”. But this means engineering the oppression of an entire people, creating a drug that will strip them of everything that they are, whilst also using eugenics to craft a new world in his image.
However, on the other side of things you have Jarli, who is coming from the right perspective, he wants to protect his people, and is acting when his elders can’t or won’t. However, many of his actions come from a place of youth, right intentions but not the experience to see the flaws in his plans, this leads him to be much more willing to shed blood than anyone should. Finally, we have Koen, who has had a life where people have mocked him for his birth, where he engaged in actions that lead to innocents dying, and has had to learn the hard way what having and using power means. This means fighting smart, not out of anger, but fighting for a world where all are equal. There is no time for revenge or retaliation, that is not the way forward, and unlike Waruu, he is willing to sacrifice everything.
As far as the story goes, those improvements, which I mentioned before, have really helped the narrative. One area where it worked a lot better is that we actually got a resolution at the end of Season Two. In Season One it ended on the imminent occupation of The Zone by Containment Authority forces but the show ended before the battle. Indeed we never got to see the outcome, because Season Two picks up after it had all finished. Now I know we probably didn’t get to see the battle due to budgetary constraints, and that meant we some characters died off-screen which was a shame. However, in Season Two, yes there was a lot of those threads left unanswered at the end, but we got the conclusion to the great battle brewing throughout the season, but it was a battle in which everyone lost.
From the production side of things, there was a lot that I could mention, the music was all on point, which really helps build the world and then the tension for each scene. Once again, I have to give a big shout out to Weta studios for their amazing physical props, no one can make the world like they can. Indeed the only thing that didn’t quite work for me was Waruu, in the last battle, the hairy arms/smooth face/immaculate white singlet combination just looked odd. Another standout was the locations, from Melaleuca forests that locate you in the heart of Australia, to the deep bush in all its glory. Indeed Tourism Australia could use that sweeping shot of the waterfall in its advertising campaign, it was gorgeous.
All of this supported by the central theme of Cleverman, and that is what happens when you try to destroy a people. We have people stripping everything away from the Hairy people, their identities, their culture, their language, even their names, all in the name of ‘assimilation’ and ‘safety’. As you watch this cultural genocide happen, you have to remember that this is what happened across the world. Peoples land was taken from them, their culture suppressed, people taken removed from their families and expunged from everything that made them who they are. This is the story of the Indigenous peoples of Canada and America, of Mexico and Argentina, of Australia and New Zealand, of the people chained into boats and sent across the ocean to work as slaves, and so many many more.
This is why shows like Cleverman are so important, because it forces us to understand the past, the hurt we have caused and are still causing in the world. To make it clear I am a white Australian, I grew up in a time where history at schools didn’t really go back past the First Fleet, Uluru was called Ayres Rock, and we still had not apologised for the Stolen Generation. Now while some of this has improved, there is still not a lot of Indigenous representation on Australian screens, let alone examples of Indigenous languages and cultures. For many people watching this might be the first time, they have ever heard an Indigenous language being spoken. To put that in perspective for those outside Australia, before the British arrived there were around 250 language groups in Australia, but today most people in Australia have never heard one spoken. It is a disgrace just how little Indigenous culture we get on Australian television, let alone Indigenous people being cast in shows. Why is this important? well, when Arrival (review) came out there was the story of the etymology of the word ‘Kangaroo’, which the writers rightly point out is false. However, in reply one of the generals said: “Remember what happened to the Aboriginals, they were nearly wiped out by a far [technologically] superior race“. To which some on the internet replied “it was quite absurd to hear this coming from the screen …Aboriginals were not “nearly wiped out” … poor form Hollywood”. There is a lack of understanding of Indigenous culture, the struggle to be recognised, the struggle to get acknowledgement for the crimes of the past, and everything people are trying to do to forge a better future.
At the moment no one else in Australia is producing science fiction like this, let alone shows that make you think and reevaluate the world you live in. So if you have not checked Cleverman out yet, please give it a look on ABC Iview, Sundance TV, BBC3, and it is also on Netflix in a lot of places. I end this review with a call to those funding bodies that help make Cleverman possible, please bring it back for a third season. We need shows like Cleverman on Australian television, we need quality genre television in Australia, the last time that happened was Farscape, we need to see the resolution the show has earned.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Cleverman
Directed by – Wayne Blair & Leah Purcell
Created by – Ryan Griffen
Written by – Stuart Page, Justine Gillmer, Ryan Griffen, Jada Alberts & Jade Allen
Cinematography by – Mark Wareham
Music by – Samuel Scott, Thomas Wedde & Lukasz Buda
Starring – Hunter Page-Lochard, Rob Collins, Tasma Walton, Rarriwuy Hick, Rachael Blake, Jada Alberts, Clarence Ryan, Tony Briggs, Luke Ford, Tamala Shelton, Marcus Graham, Deborah Mailman, Frances O’Connor & Iain Glen with Tessa Rose & Jack Charles